Health Matters: New year, better you: there’s an app for that!

By Eran C. Gwillim
Medical student and member of the student group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford

At the start of a New Year, you, like many others, may be motivated to make changes that will help you become healthier, happier, more productive and prosperous — a better you.

Many of us say, “This is the year that I will make a lasting change; this is the year that I will lose those extra pounds by eating healthier and getting in shape by exercising.” But, with this resolution comes a tremendous challenge that may have been attempted many times before without success.

The technology explosion of recent years has spurred lifestyle changes that we are still struggling to understand. Kids are glued to video games instead of playing outside, many adults are sedentary at computer workstations rather than physically active, and smartphones mean that we don’t even need to leave the couch to get a book off the shelf or from the library.

While less activity means lower caloric needs, portion sizes are bigger than ever, and the consumption of overly-processed, calorically-dense food and high-calorie/high-sugar drinks has increased.

Glib advertising phrases such as “Just Do It” and “Is It In You?” prevail, but do not seem to catapult most of us into action, no matter how catchy or motivating the slogan is. So, you may be asking yourself, how can we reverse this problem and finally commit to being healthy?

Despite technology having changed our lifestyle and the dynamics of living a healthy life, ironically, it might also be a way to help achieve the goals of eating healthier and exercising more. This technology is available to us through innovative new applications (apps) on smartphones and tablets. With 45 percent of American adults using smartphones, the use of health apps may allow some people to more easily achieve their fitness goals.

Fitness apps are a relatively new technology, and preliminary studies suggest they may help people achieve and maintain their goals. In a study by Morgan et al., called the Workplace POWER trial, a web-based intervention was investigated to see if it could help people lose weight and reduce other health-related problems. They showed a significant intervention effect with weight loss after 14 weeks, decreased waist circumference, reduced body mass index, decreased systolic blood pressure and decreased resting heart rate.

The web-based intervention they used in their study was, and they now have an app (which costs $3.99) that employs the same fundamental principles as their website.

A different study, by Pellegrini et al., suggests that the essential components for successful weight loss include social support, feedback and accountability. CalorieKing, as well as another app called MyFitnessPal (which is free), utilize these essential components. MyFitnessPal and CalorieKing allow you to create a personal profile and track calories consumed and burned through the use of an extensive food and exercise library. These functions allow you to become more aware of your caloric intake and expenditure, through increased monitoring, which can facilitate weight loss and overall health improvement by seeing the adjustment in caloric intake and/or expenditure that you need to make. Additionally, these apps provide daily feedback and encourage you to invite friends to follow along with your progress, as this allows for the much-needed social support and accountability.

Though technology may, in part, be to blame for our more sedentary lifestyle, we may still be able to repurpose it to better our health. Fitness apps provide an effective way to monitor progress with both diet and exercise, provide feedback about how one is doing, and incorporate the much-needed social support that help people change. With the use of these apps, we can make a plan and stay focused until our goal is achieved.

From the March 20-26, 2013, issue

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